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Why always the mother?

family of four with dad cut out and emphasis on mom

Researchers evidently think mothers are significantly more important than fathers. Perhaps I should be flattered, but I'm not. I'm annoyed at the amount of blame that gets explicitly and implicitly put on mothers and I'm annoyed at the way fathers are dismissed as insignificant influences on their children's lives.

In a post last week, I mentioned a study called Maternal Employment, Work Schedules, and Children's Body Mass Index by Taryn W. Morrissey, Rachel E. Dunifon and Ariel Kalil that was published in the Journal of Child Development. The study found that: "an increase in the total time a mother is employed is associated with an increase in her child’s BMI; additionally, the association between maternal employment and children’s weight is much stronger at 6th grade relative to younger ages". While the author has been quoted in several news articles as saying that the study is not intended to make mothers feel guilty and stated that "this is not a maternal employment issue; this is a family balance issue" (as reported by CTV), the data and analysis is very focused on maternal employment.

All of the data in the study looks specifically at the mother, the nature and duration of her employment, and its impact on the children's BMI. In addition to the data focusing entirely on mothers, the study also hypothesizes about possible reasons for the findings that focus entirely on the mother, e.g.:

Mothers who work nonstandard hours may not be available during key times in children’s days when they are not in school, including the weekends, late afternoons, dinnertime, the postdinner hours, bedtime, and wake time. These are times during which important family routines are typically performed (family meals, organized activities, bedtime routines, and physical activity). Given mothers’ traditional role as primary caregivers and managers of children’s time (Bianchi, 2000), it is possible that nonstandard schedules hinder mothers’ abilities to plan and supervise their children’s activities during these key times. This, in turn, could have implications for children’s BMI through children’s physical activity and TV time, suggesting particular impacts on children when mothers work nonstandard schedules as compared to mothers working standard schedules.

All of this is plausible, of course, but leaves me wanting to ask "who is caring for these children?" It is entirely possible that while these mothers are at work, that their children are in the care of their lazy fathers who are lounging around on the couch eating a bag of chips and passing on bad habits to their children instead of being actively engaged with their children and preparing nutritious meals for them. I'm not saying that is the case (because we do not know and the fact that we do not know is half of the problem). However, if we are going to place blame, perhaps we should put it on the person who is caring for the children while the mother is at work (father, babysitter, after school program, grandparent, etc.), rather than simply blaming the mother for being absent.

The study at least recognizes this gaping hole in part by saying that it "examined children's BMI in relation to their mothers' work status and schedules, but the role that fathers' work plays in children's physical health remains unexplored."

This is not the only study to do this. I have read numerous studies on various aspects of child development (sleep, discipline, etc.) that look exclusively at maternal characteristics and behaviours and their impact on child outcomes. These studies either:

  • specifically seek out families where the mother is the primary caregiver and draw broad conclusions from the data that they then apply to the general population (where the mother is not always the primary caregiver); or,

  • look at a broad range of families but still focus exclusively on the mother under an assumption that the father somehow doesn't matter.

A lot of these studies seem to rely, at least in part, on data that is collected through broad statistical surveys of the population. In some cases, when I've e-mailed the researchers, they have stated that they would have liked to have looked at the fathers too, but that the data simply wasn't available.  In other cases, the researchers didn't seem to have a great interest in looking at the fathers.

I'd like to see a shift in child development research -- one that gives dads some of the credit and some of the blame -- or that at least realizes that in two parent homes there are, theoretically, at least two adults involved in raising the children. Of course that would only be the tip of the iceberg -- recognizing that there are single parent families, same sex parent families, families with more than two parents, and so on would really throw a wrench into the desire to put everyone into a nice neat box.

Image credit: Adapted from photo by Muffet on flickr
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Reader Comments (64)

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by phdinparenting, ppd sahm, Emily Rose Roy, Jennifer Jackson, Kim and others. Kim said: RT @phdinparenting: New post: Why always the mother? http://bit.ly/fiOrFt #fem2 [...]

I would argue that studies treating BMI as a significant scientific tool need to be looked at with both a grain of salt and with skepticism.

February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSlee

How could fathers possible play a role in any of this. Don't they rush off to work before kids leave for school, then come home at dinner to waiting slippers and a prepared dinner, after which he retires to the den for brandy and cigars? ;o)

February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I agree with all you've written. It's pretty stereotyped and unfair to the Mums. Lucky I'm a Dad!

February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBillyT

You make some very good points here. There's so much research out there and the conclusions are sometimes very disturbing. Equally disturbing is the knowledge that people accept their conclusions without noting the hypothesis on which the research was based nor the sample on which the research was performed.

February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClara AT imakini

Definitely want to give men half the blame - particularly in a study like this that presupposes food preparation and education is completely the mother's responsibility - but credit to men is something they need to earn. This study doesn't need to be gender specific at all though. How about looking at children's eating habits based on the availability of either parent without naming the gender of the parent?

February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus

Too true. I'm very aware of how involved fathers can be, as two of my sisters have stay at home husbands who are the primary caregivers. I don't like how their contributions are dismissed so easily. I don't like how my husband's contributions are dismissed either, even though I'm the primary caregiver in my family. Fathers matter.

February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie - Green SAHM


I would argue that it is unfair to Dads too (unless they are screwing up and letting Mom take the blame).

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I think that research is starting to change, but like societal changes in general, it takes time. How many people talk about their husbands "babysitting" their child? Even if the mother is the primary caregiver, the father is not "babysitting," he is parenting. As there are more and more SAHDs and fathers who are more involved in everyday parenting choices this bias should change as well.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

Thank you for articulately describing an incredibly frustrating situation! Stuff like this always makes me think of my older friend Roz, who described bringing her baby daughter to the pediatrician (this must have been around the year 1980) with an ear infection or some similar childhood illness. The pediatrician examined the baby, diagnosed her, and then turned to Roz and said, "What do you expect? You're a working mother!"
It's amazing to me how 30 years later, with the vast majority of women in the workforce, that attitude has not fundamentally changed at all.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

Excellent blog post!

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterB

[...] in Parenting asks a damn good question:  Why always the mother?  It is an issue I’m particularly sensitive to, since we have a beautiful reversal of [...]

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSunday Surf – positive a

I totally get the frustration. But I think we have to remember that there are so many family types that usually the only standard element is the birth mother. If we started doing studies specifically to include a father, we'll end up with studies full of white, nuclear, 2 income families. And those studies won't be any more representative than the ones we've got.

I think what we need is to start making journalists more accountable for skewing the conclusions of single studies when they report them.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKrista

The thing about the researchers is that they are constrained by data. In order for studies to be comparable over time and to other studies in the field, they have to ask the same types of questions and collect the same data year after year. So if they are started this research back in the 1970s, the bias started there. Yes, you can add new questions and be more politically aware, but you will have a shorter time series for say "Dad's" working hours and you may not be able to compare results across studies. In turn, with fewer years of data, you are less likely to be able to find "statistical significance" for any one factor, the holy grail of research findings. It is easier, research wise, to just assume Dad works all the time, and hold Mom as the variable. Perhaps it is lazy, but it is standard protocol.

I think you are right to be outraged, but the remedy may be to question the assumptions that "it's mom's fault" and the policy ramifications what to do about it, not the data itself. Perhaps it is true that obesity has risen with the rise more dual-working parent households. The rise of obesity is also connected to dual car ownership, increased TV watching, eating school lunch, and the elimination of recess in schools. (Not to mention easy access to cheap, processed food.) There are many causes here and many possible solutions. To lay the blame at mother's feet alone is not only wrong, it also won't be very effective in reversing the childhood obesity trend.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGrace @eatdinner

You really raise some great points. I have noticed as my children get older that there has been a definite shift in our parenting paradigm, but I distinctly recall when they were little, feeling that if I wanted to go out - whether it was grocery shopping or a book club, or a weekend away with the girls - I had to "make arrangements" with my husband for him to take care of the kids. If he had something to attend, he might courtesy check that I didn't mind him going, but despite the fact that he was a stay-at-home dad for 6 months and has always been an actively involved father, he was far more likely to assume the child care was taken care of.

I think - rightly or wrongly - society does still very much see the mother as the central figure in a child's life. But also, as other posters have mentioned, it is difficult to account for all the varied family situations out there, so mother becomes a convenient term. Personally, I find studies that refer to the "primary care giver" instead sound stuffy and impersonal, though obviously that term would be a better way to accomodate all family situations.

It's interesting.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDenise Nielsen

Researchers who don't take into account evolving social patterns reach erroneous conclusions. How is it possible to control all the variables and even make a valid comparison? I am just pleased that these days both parents are more involved. I hope more balanced kids will be the result.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaurel

I'm going to throw a wrench in your works here by approaching this from a more Radical Feminist Perspective.

I think the problem you have here is that you are making the Liberal Feminist mistake of assuming that the Male Model of focusing on productive work as the arbiter of value should be emulated by women in order that we can "achieve equality" with Men by being as much like them as possible. Essentially, women are told that freedom lies in doing "anything Men can do, but better". But Radical Feminism questions different assumptions than Liberal or Mainstream Feminism.

In a pre-feminist patriarchy males derive status and success from productive work and women are relegated to reproductive work only. This pattern is based on two assumptions. 1/Productive work is more valuable and worthwhile than reproductive work. 2/Women are not capable of productive work and therefore they are also less valuable and worthwwhile. Liberal Feminists have only questioned the second assumption and have asserted Women's right to be engaged in productive work in order to also be considered valuable and worthwhile along with Men. Because the first assumption remains unchallenged, anything which asserts Women's innate primary function in terms of reproductive work is looked at as a threat and a devaluation of women, a way to prevent Mothers from being able to access the value and status accorded to those successful at productive work. I do not want to allow the second assumption to stand, clearly it is wrong. Women ARE very capable of succeeding at productive work. I would simply like to point out that by failing to challenge the first assumption, Liberal Feminists and the majority of women are NOT helping the cause of Female Emancipation at all and are denying our society the opportunity to make meaningful change at the foundational level thus better meeting the needs of ALL people.

So, if you look at this study with this assumption, that reproductive work is a burden unfairly laid at the feet of women and that the men are "getting away" with not doing "their fair share of the dirty work" then yes, it could be very upsetting.
"Why are we blaming the Women for their influence with their children? Why do we assume that child-bearing is for Women! Why don't the lazy nasty Men do some of the nasty horrible useless icky child-bearing work! Women deserve to be set free from being Mothers! it's not fair!"

However, if you begin with the Radical assumption that not only is reproductive work valuable and worthwhile, but that it is in fact MORE important than productive work, and that productive work should be considered to be performed in the service of reproductive work, it turns everything upside down. If you have never done this before it's a bit of an Alice in Wonderland moment. It flips your world. If status and value and the economic rewards commensurate with status were re-assigned to reproductive work rather than productive work then our read of this study would change totally too. It is a bit weird if you've never thought outside that box, never challenged that assumption, never considered what a world that didn't think that would look like, but work with me.

Since reproductive work is the most important work, asserting that women are the natural primary childbearers and ones most responsible and capable of performing that function, now becomes an assertion of Women's superiority. Stating that Women are burdened by productive work that diminishes their ability to perform their reproductive work to their full effectiveness becomes not an attempt to take away their freedom. Not an attempt to stick them with all the dirty work and let Men be lazy. But rather an assertion of their right to choose to place their focus on reproductive work and not on the less worthwhile productive work. If you approach this study with that very different perspective, it could be read as a vindication of Women and a call for the true value and status of reproductive work to be recognised and appropriately remunerated and empowered. Rather than trying to come up with ways to figure out why someone other than the Mother is failing to do a job that they are less capable of doing than the Mother, we spend our time trying to figure out how to ensure that reproductive work is sufficiently rewarding for Women that they can put it, rather than productive work, first. So my response to this study is also to be bothered, but for TOTALLY different reasons.

The sentence in this study that offends me the most, is the one assuming that Working Women are ONLY the ones who have productive jobs. If Women weren't getting stiffed by NOT being paid for reproductive work, if THOSE women were recognised to be working hard at the most valuable work, then we wouldn't have children getting obese because Moms have handed off reproductive work to those less capable of performing that valuable fuction. Rather than pushing for studies to "blame" someone else for ignoring the children, why don't we rethink this so that the Moms can be there for their kids to avoid the problem in the first place, without being devalued and punished financially and socially for doing so? A Radical notion I know, but after all, THAT is the whole point of fighting for freedom right? Isn't freedom to be yourself better than freedom to try to copy your oppressor?

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCassaundra


I think you've misunderstood my argument or are reading things between the lines that are not there.

I think that earning money and raising children are both important. I think women and men deserve choice in which role(s) they want to play. Obviously women have a primary role in carrying, birthing and nursing a baby. However, that doesn't mean the mother has to be the primary caregiver forever. It also doesn't mean that when she is out of the house (whether for work or for pleasure) that she still needs to be 100% responsible for the well being of the children.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

How about basing studies on the primary caregiver? Why does it have the defined by a gendered parent? Many children live with just their dad. This study could have been conducted looking at who is the primary caregiver, perhaps separating 2-parent households vs 1-parent, and going from there.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

I see these types of studies reported on in parenting magazines all the time, and it irritates me to no end that a correlational study is treated as proof of causality. Last month I read about one that showed that the more books you have in your home growing up, the more successful you are in school and are more likely to complete higher degrees of education. They even broke it down by numbers of books-- if you had 0-100 books, you were likely to reach X level; 100-200 books, then you'd make it to Y level. Etc. No mention of the fact that it's not the number of books present that magically make one a reader or do well in school, but likely the kinds of parents who a) enjoy books enough to have many around, b) likely enjoyed a good education to begin with, thus being able to read and be exposed to literature, and c) are at a high enough socioeconomic level to be able to afford lots of books.

Here, the clear assumption that everyone makes is that BECAUSE the mothers who work longer hours, their children have higher BMIs (and I totally agree that BMI is a bit of a bogus indicator to begin with). As another commenter mentioned, there are many other changes in family life that could also easily be correlated to increase weight in children. Do any of them have anything to do with weight gain? Who knows? You CANNOT tell from a correlation. Such a simple concept that gets forgotten along the way...

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

I just wonder how three female researchers came up with such a hypothesis...then again I am always mystified by women, particularly educated women, who do not approach things from a feminist perspective.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commentereva

Just throwing this perspective into the mix: Fathers have historically been extremely difficult to recruit for research. This may be changing some as fathers' roles in the family shift, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that it's WAY easier to convince mothers to participate in research studies than it is to convince their husbands. Just an anecdote for your amusement: in the hundreds of families I have met in the process of conducting research on child development, I have never been thrown out of someone's house by a mom. I have, however, been very abruptly ushered out of a home by a dad who was not happy that I was there to test his child!

So some small bit of this bias is pragmatic. Not ideal, but we do the research that can be done.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLara

This is the type of article that would infuriate my husband. Not for the reasons being discussed, but because he is a college professor, has a doctorate in education and teaches physical fitness, weight training and health classes. It just seems like in research on children and their physical activity, nutrition, etc, is so oriented around such theoretical ideas and the basic fundamental issue are being over looked. Physical education and sports are but afterthoughts in public school here in the US compared to history. Kids are simply eating too much, and not exercising enough. The factors that contribute to that are a complex interplay of situations and this study appears loaded in assumptions of traditional gender roles. Would love to see a study with stay at home fathers as primary caregivers with the mom working the hours outlined in the study.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersblairc

Annie – I agree with your general critique of many of these studies. Quantitative research tells us mainly about broad social patterns (which are important) but, in my view, they cannot get to the heart of parenting practices and child development - nor about shifts in mothering and fathering as sets of relations, identities, and institutions. As you note, positing a hypothesis excludes factors which the researchers deem unimportant - in this case the role of fathers and other caregivers. The same thing happened for decades in social science research on employment: mothers' paid work was often excluded because researchers had a difficult time fitting it in (because it did not fit male-stream lenses). And of course unpaid work is still excluded from most studies that examine ‘work’.

I also agree with Krista above that there is a problem with skewed headlines… And with other thoughtful comments above (e.g. Gwen and Jake and Stephanie to name a few) on the importance of including dads in family research. Grace raises good points about the limits of the data and the need to look at a wider generational changes in consumption patterns. While I respect Lara’s research and agree that typically fathers were difficult to recruit for research studies, dads are increasingly keen to have their voices heard in parenting research. (I know this because I’ve interviewed hundreds of dads, and have been writing about them, for about 15 years).

There is also a growing body of research that examines the relation between fathers and child development. As the Editor of the journal Fathering (http://www.mensstudies.com/content/120394/), a few articles come across my desk every month on this issue. Ironically, I now find myself sometimes wondering: where are the mothers? My own view is that in households with two parents, we need to look at the wide relational contexts within which children are raised (and for families with two parents, yes, they both matter). I also want to add that one of the best (Canadian) resources on fathering is the Fathering Involvement Research Alliance, FIRA (http://www.fira.ca/).
Keep up the excellent work!
P.s. If you are interested, I would be happy to send you a copy of my book “Do Men Mother?” (which explores the stories of stay-at-home dads and single fathers).

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Doucet

As someone who studies childhood issues and is often guilty of publishing data about mothers, my primary reasons behind it are that (1) dads are often not the primary parent who makes decisions about the child and (2) dads are often not available to participate, due to work, absence from the child's life, incarceration, etc. The unfortunate truth is that available and willing to participate dads are so few and far between that they become "outliers" in the data, so they tend to not be included. I tell myself and my students that any data is better than no data. Unfortunately, we live in a society that blames moms for every bad outcome and applauds dads for any contribute.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarlin

Wow. The comments on this don't leave much middle ground today. I find myself totally agreeing with one (BMI? Really? My husband is off the chart and he is just FINE - genetically pre disposed to tall and skinny) and then totally stunned by the next. I mean, Carlin, you don't include dads because they are often incarcerated? Really??? That happens often enough that it's in your top three reasons for dads being unavailable? (Also, last I checked working moms have to get time off work to participate too!)

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary @ Parenthood


Thank you for those excellent resources. I will check them out for sure.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

"However, if we are going to place blame, perhaps we should put it on the person who is caring for the children while the mother is at work (father, babysitter, after school program, grandparent, etc.), rather than simply blaming the mother for being absent."

AMEN! And... it is not de facto the Mother's duty to look in to these concerns. The Father/Co-Parent should be equally concerned and equally able to provide direction to caregivers.

Something I have noticed in my own experience: it can be difficult to provide direction to caregivers on the care of your child. Working parents could use a parenting book or articles giving tips on how to better communicate and provide feedback/instructions to caregivers.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlina Laurie

I have asked researchers about this in the past (well, two researchers) and they both told me the same thing - that it is very hard to get fathers to participate in studies related to parenting issues, while mothers are usually much more willing. So that's why they almost always focus on mothers. Don't know if that's true but that's what they said.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTeresa Pitman

And why is that... WHAT are Moms blamed for bad outcomes while Dads are praised? WHY? It drives me insane. Why do people constantly ask me, after I gave birth to my 3rd child, "Are you going to quit working and stay home" while no one .. not a single person has ever asked my husband that same question.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlina Laurie

As Marcy points out above, correlation is not evidence of causality. I was reminded of this article:

The biggest predictor of obesity is low income. It's maybe not the fact that the moms are absent that causes this study's findings, but that they are poor (and so required to work a lot).

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin OK @ it's OK


We had quite a discussion about that issue in the post last week about this article: http://www.phdinparenting.com/2011/02/04/canadian-women-were-fat-our-kids-are-fat-and-were-letting-other-people-raise-our-children/

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting


If that is true, I think that it needs to be noted in the research and someone needs to do research to understand why that is the case.

It amazes me that researchers are willing to draw conclusions from data with so many gaps in it and that the media is willing to report on those conclusions as if they are valid and applicable to the general population.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I wonder if they could do a study on paternal employment and how that affects a child. (Doesn't just saying that sound crazy?) This study is absolutely ridiculous. Parents who work nontraditional hours typically (but not always) do so because they are poor and don't have a choice. I bet that correlates with the fact that good food is more expensive, so poorer families chose more processed meals. Funny how everyone is always, "Blame the mothers." Sigh.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa E.

Well, wait a second, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Speaking as a researcher: Are we supposed to wait until the perfect study is possible before we pursue our research questions? Are we to keep important preliminary findings buried because they're based on imperfect methods?

I completely agree that correlational research should be interpreted with extreme caution, and seen as suggestive of trends, pointing us in the direction of future research to tease apart the nature of the correlation (etc etc). But we can't just ignore these studies simply because they have "gaps." ALL research with humans has gaps. It is the nature of the beast. I don't see that the authors drew any conclusions that were not supported by their data; their interpretation is just conjecture and they're pretty clear about that.

It's okay to lay the groundwork like this. These basic correlational studies are vital in pointing researchers in the right direction.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLara


I understand the challenge of imperfect data. However, I do think that researchers need to consider whether there is a bias behind the hypothesis that they are considering exploring with that imperfect data because

(biased hypothesis + imperfect data) x media spin = boatload of misplaced blame and guilt

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I wish there were a LIKE button for this comment.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah @ BecomingSarah.com

I tend to agree with Lara.

I read the paper and noted the following things:
1. @Erin OK, the authors have controlled for low income in their analysis, but it's statistically insignificant. I am guessing that it's because low income is highly correlated with race. It is shown in their study that "Child is Black" is a much more significant predictor than the maternal employment variables.

2. The comments regarding the fact that it is hard to recruit fathers in studies on parenting is irrelevant to this particular research article. Data for the analysis is derived from a longitudinal dataset with 'families' as subjects. It's not that the authors decided to single out maternal employment (mothers). The authors have included a variable looking at fathers' working hours which turned out to be insignificant.

3. I am still having trouble digesting their conclusion, because the way they and interpret the regression techniques (random versus fixed effects) is rather different to how my discipline normally does.

Finally, focus on mothers on quantitative research has not always been negative. For example, maternal education and/or maternal employment has been shown to be significant predictors of egalitarian gender role attitudes among young boys and girls. Maternal education has been shown to be significant predictors for child survival in developing countries. Maternal education and/or maternal employment is a significant predictor of family planning practice in married couples, etc etc. So, apart from blaming the media spin, I don't understand why anyone would blame any researcher who pursues a hypothesis looking at the impact of maternal employment on child outcomes. It could go both ways.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkatadia

I'd like to think that my husband and I share parenting decisions equally, but the truth is that when he's the one caring for her, I do feel a little like he's babysitting her for me. I'm the one staying at home with her, setting the majority of the routines, etc so maybe this is to be expected. Or maybe it's just societal conditioning. Either way, if I were in his shoes, it would make me feel pretty undermined. Will have to start changing the way I think about his time with her.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

Yeah, I really don't understand why researchers don't just couch this type of study on "two parent homes in which both parents work." It's really not that difficult. Then, they would not only include fathers, but also same sex couples. And, if they must focus on mothers, then they need to say why fathers weren't examined. Is it a single parent home or is he just a lazy git.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia


The authors did look at the fathers' working hours, however, they were only looking at it in terms of working fewer than 35 hours per week or working more than 35 hours per week. Their sample group was fairly homogenous from the perspective that the mother's partner (sometimes the father, sometimes not) was almost always employed (between 93% and 96 of the time). So while the sample was fairly diverse in terms of non-working mothers, mothers working a standard schedule, and mothers working non-standard schedules, as well as some working more hours and some working less hours, the sample of fathers was much less diverse.

I think that if they are going to draw conclusions about what happens when mothers work more, then they need to test that against a similar but opposite sample where the mothers are pretty much all employed, but there is a mix of different employment statuses among the fathers and see whether the results are the same or different.

Further, even if it turns out that it is ONLY when mothers work more that the children tend to be overweight, then I think the results can still be framed differently -- both by the researchers and by the media. They should find out who is with the children when their mothers are not and try to dig further there. Perhaps latch-key kids are more likely to be overweight because there is no one to supervise what they are eating. Perhaps kids whose fathers are preparing their dinners are more likely to be overweight because their dads make less nutritious choices (this should certainly not be framed as the mother's fault for going to work). Perhaps the kids are with a babysitter or older siblings who let them eat junk food.

I am happy that this study did look at things like television watching and physical activity and found it interesting that they were not significant in terms of the results. To me, that means it is what is going into children's mouths that must be the predictor and in my opinion, it is more important to look at who IS providing food while the mother is at work instead of saying that the kids are fat because the mother went to work.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

"I’d like to see a shift in child development research — one that gives dads some of the credit and some of the blame — or that at least realizes that in two parent homes there are, theoretically, at least two adults involved in raising the children."

YES. And we aren't doing fathers any favors by minimizing their role in their children's lives.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Britt

See, but this is my issue with so much of the breastfeeding research, too, Annie! Not the studies which actually look at the biological components of breastmilk (those are incredible and we need many more of them, IMO), but all these observational ones which control for maternal IQ or weight or what have you and totally disregard the father's role. Check out Joan Wolf's new book for a really good discussion on this exact issue.

And cool post!

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFearless Formula Feeder

I am not too sure about calling the sample homogenous. In order to have some sort of validity, the sample needs to be representative of something. The author clearly states that while their sample is not nationally representative, it is a random sample with close representation to the demographic characteristics of the study sites at the beginnning of the study.

The authors could just easily include the variables that measured all the different variation in fathers' employment from the sample (pretty sure the data is there, maybe they didn't because they turn out to be insignificant). In most places I know, there is always less variation in fathers' employment patterns than mothers, and indeed demographic factors (marriage, childbearing, divorce), have shown stronger relationship to female employment than to male employment.

Having said that, your idea on using purposive sampling to test your hypothesis is interesting.

I agree with your points of framing the results differently.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkatadia

Marcy, I think this is a good point. Even in families with two parents and two working parents, there is often one parent who is "primary." In our home, career switches and maternity leaves have meant different "primary" parenting roles depending on the year.

February 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercoffee with julie

All in all, I can't even read these kinds of articles/research any more. It's getting boring to be at fault for so many things! My poor children don't stand a chance. ;)

February 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercoffee with julie

The trouble is that in that scenario, the caregivers themselves become variables. It makes the results even murkier than they already are. I'm not saying it's right to always start from mothers, but as a researcher, I understand why it's done.

February 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKrista

While I'm in full agreement that raising children is incredibly valuable work, I think @Cassaundra has missed a very important point: child-bearing is a different thing than child-rearing!

February 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrances

And even more insane: the assumption that if either of you stay home that you will have "quit working". As if.

February 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrances

Sad, but not amazing. Look at medical research: for years it was all done on men and extrapolated to women. Now that that is changing, we realize how often the extrapolation was just wrong...but some researchers still do it. Although I would have expected social science to be ahead of that curve, clearly it's not.

As for the media: blaming moms keeps women feeling guilty and inadequate and fosters the ongoing "debate" as to whether we should work or stay home (and not work, ha). Maybe I'm cynical but seems to me that keeping us preoccupied with that kind of shinola might serve to keep half the population otherwise silenced. Hmmm.

February 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrances

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